The Swerve

December 7, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Claire Wahmanholm on “Sacred Harp Convention as Dream Figure” by G.C. Waldrep

Like all of my favorite poems, G.C. Waldrep’s “Sacred Harp Convention as Dream Figure” disturbs me. It didn’t at first. The outskirts of the poem are benign enough—dreams, golden bubbles, music, a tableau of a banquet. I’m curious more than anything else, and willing to follow the poem’s dream logic down whatever path, into whatever woods.

But the path is slippery. Its edges are crumbling and forking into the dark. We may not even be on a path at all. We’re following “a sound like music that was not music,” trying to read a bloody writing that is “almost a language”; we do know for sure that “there had been some sort of accident,” but it’s unclear at this point whether we are actually in danger. And for me, so much of the pleasure in this poem is found in the flicker between the safe and the sinister, the note that flutters between the major and minor key, the breath on the back of the neck that says first “all is well” and then “all is ill.”

Sacred harp music has always fallen on my ear with an eerie, unearthly quality. Maybe it’s the lack of absolute pitch—the swerve from one note to the next—or maybe it’s the bareness of the human voice, which, unaccompanied and unshaped by musical instruments, approximates the openness of an animal cry. But even with this uncanny music in our ear, one of the brilliant things about this poem is that it prevents us from getting too suspicious too quickly. This is just a dream, after all. Don’t think too much about the “distinct odor of freshly-sawn pine” or the “dried blood.” Think about the men and women, the banquet, the sense of community. This is a good dream, a dream “one longs to revisit.”

And then it isn’t. “Outside, the fields were shading into husks and there were those who wanted to come in. I remember this clearly: we were waiting for those who wanted to come in.” It’s the husks, the verbatim repetition, the focus on the unspecified “those” and their desire to enter the building that finally makes me turn around and see what’s been following me. But by now it’s too late to turn back. We’re too far into the woods. Without noticing, we have strayed beyond the frontier of the living. We have been dead for some time without knowing it.

One of the distinguishing aspects of sacred harp music is its inwardness—the fact that it is directed toward one’s fellow singers rather than toward a purely spectating audience. The poem is likewise a tunneling inward—away from the windows, away from reality, away from name and memory. The poem ends on the sublimity of the loss of self—the simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating experience of absorption into something bigger, something simultaneously feared and longed for.

Claire Wahmanholm’s poems most recently appear in BOAAT, Tinderbox, The Journal, and are forthcoming from Winter Tangerine, DIAGRAM, Best New Poets 2015, Handsome, Kenyon Review Online, Sugared Water, and Third Coast. She is a PhD student at the University of Utah, where she co-edits Quarterly West. You can find here online at clairewahmanholm.com.

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